The ethical implications of genetically modified food

Published October 1, 1999


IN THE BOOK of Genesis God instructs humankind to, “fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over ? every living thing that moves on the earth.” From earliest times we have done just that. We have adapted the natural world to serve our own ends, transforming natural processes to provide ourselves with whatever we need. However, most theologians have recently insisted that the notion of dominion does not give us freedom to do anything we choose with creation, but rather offers the task and responsibility of stewardship.

For many, the new biotechnologies reflect the vanity of our technological culture rather than responsible stewardship, and the results of such vanity, they say, will be dire, especially for those most vulnerable. One particular area of concern is in the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food production. The best known example was actually a commercial failure, the so called Flavr Savr? Tomato. What are the risks and benefits of this sort of genetic manipulation?

First, let me say that human beings have been genetically modifying animals and plants ever since they began to practice agriculture. Few of our farm varieties are like their wild ancestors. Until recently this modification took place through selective breeding. Now it is possible to modify genes and introduce these modified genes, or genes from another organism, into the plant or animal we are trying to “improve.” In the case of the Flavr Savr? the concern was to produce tomatoes that could be ripened on the vine. Normally such tomatoes have too short a shelf life to be saleable after transport over long distances. As a result tomatoes are usually picked when green and treated with chemicals to stimulate ripening when they are ready for sale.

The Flavr Savr(tm) was a relatively innocuous genetic modification, but even that raises some issues. The point of the modification was to support the western demand for fresh produce year round, often grown in developing countries and shipped North. But is this a good use of resources? And what are the implications for the developing countries who must produce cash crops to pay international debt loads even when they are having difficulties feeding their own population. The Flavr Savr? was symptomatic of a global economic system about which Christians have recently expressed a great deal of concern.

Other modifications are not so innocent, like the introduction of “terminator” genes to prevent farmers from planting seed from crops that they have grown forcing them to buy new seed every year. There are also issues of safety. It is possible that genes introduced into a plant to modify it could change the plants character provoking allergic reactions. There are also possible environmental implications. If genes to promote pesticide resistance are introduced into crops there is the possibility that these genes can be transferred into other plants creating strains of pesticide- resistant weed.

Perhaps the most immediate concern in our context is with the issue of transparency. The biotech industry has been very reluctant to engage in public debate around the issues raised by GMOs and has actively opposed any labelling requirements. Yet free markets require access to information if consumers are to make free decisions. The Jewish community has expressed particular concern about kosher requirements if GMOs contain genes from “unclean” animals. Further, safety requires that we can identify GMOs if we are to trace their impact. At present, this is very difficult to do. In Europe all food products containing GMOs must be labelled. I do not see why it should be so very difficult to do the same here.

Eric Beresford is consultant for ethics and interfaith relations for the Anglican Church of Canada.


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